Along with the rise of massive, all-in-one media events like Comic-Con International in San Diego over the past decade, the 2000s also saw an astonishing amount of growth in conventions and festivals centered around independent and alternative comics, from alt comics anchor the Small Press Expo (or SPX) in Bethesda, MD to New York City's own MoCCA Comics Art Festival. Last week, a new player came onto the scene in the form of SLG Publishing head Dan Vado's The San Jose Comics Festival, which has been set for downtown San Jose on January 16.
Vado has a long connection to the indie convention community, both as an exhibitor at many, many shows with SLG Publishing over the years, but more importantly as the founder of the San Francisco-based Alternative Press Expo (or APE), which is now owned by Comic-Con International. While many small press comic events take the name "Festival," Vado's latest effort aims to use the title in a more literal sense by expanding the scope of the event to a community-wide weekend of comics promotion. CBR spoke to Vado about the organization of the San Jose Comics Festival, why now is the right time to launch such a program and how his vision will help make the show a big draw while keeping it from stepping on the toes of the increasingly packed indie convention calendar.
CBR News: I guess to start, the best question would be to get a little bit of background on how this came together. SLG has been working with the warehouse/retail space for a little while now. I'm assuming that events and signings are part of the running game there already, but it seems like the recent "trial event" and now this entire festival idea are a bit different than a general signing. What can you tell me about how this whole idea has grown out of the regular operation of a retail space?
Dan Vado: The general business climate of downtown San Jose is that not many people come to shop here, but people will come in droves if you have some kind of big event. We started doing a lot of things that were outside of the normal kind of retail promotions to get people in the front door. We hosted spoken word shows and music shows and we may have stand-up comedy or circus performers in our place. So I started thinking of the space as more of a performance space and events center (the back area has a small stage and seating area that people really seem to dig) than a shop.
We did the first of our Comics Fest things in the fall and hit all of our marks in regards to attendance. I thought about the event in comparison to the best event we participate in on a regular basis, which is a monthly art crawl called South First Fridays, and it occurred to me that there was an opportunity to do something in comics that was not just another convention. Something that could be part of an ongoing process of evangelizing the medium that would also create an atmosphere fun enough that people would come to participate, even if they were not into comics.
So, the idea for a larger city-wide comics festival that would include our space, other galleries in town, the public library and some of the other public spaces in downtown, as well as at San Jose State, really appealed to me. It felt like something that could turn into a very cool event, much like the San Jose Jazz Festival.
Of course, you have to crawl before you can walk, so I am going to do smaller things in the warehouse and help build familiarity with the events as the San Jose Comics Festival, not just in the comics community but in the downtown community as well. We had made a decent mark here when we sponsored a zombie walk (Zombie-O-Rama), and we managed to get over 1,500 people to come out to downtown San Jose on a Wednesday night, a night that is dead (no pun intended) most weeks.
Beyond that inspiration, I know that you've been involved will different types of comic events for years and years, from both the organizer perspective with APE, and as an exhibitor almost everywhere else. In what ways will the Comics Festival work differently than what folks expect from the typical con-like show, both in the broad festival aspect and in the general vibe and feel of what you'll be putting on?
Well, first and foremost, I am wanting this to be a free event to attend. The San Jose Jazz Festival was, for a long time, a free event, and it was billed as the biggest free event of it's kind in the world. You don't get that kind of billing often, so in my vision for the Comics Festival, it will be something that is sponsor supported and free to the pubic.
Once we move it out of the warehouse, we are going to have to charge for exhibit space, but the idea is to really have this be a festival where people can come, hang out, meet artists, read comics and be a part of something that can be really cool.
So, for the big picture, imagine if you will a nice spring or summer weekend (and we have a load of them in San Jose - crap, it is nice most days of the year, here), and you are walking from place to place to see artists showing their books and their work. Then you wander into a restaurant or coffee shop, and there is comic art on the wall and there are free comics for you to read. From there you might go over to one of the two small parks in downtown, where vendors might have set up a flea market (all comics related), and then go over to the San Jose State Campus or the public library for programming, lectures or classes. On into the evening, there might be [more] comics related events (say, a movie in one of the theaters, or some other kind of genre-related programming).
That is the big vision. It may take years to get there, and it might never get there at all. So for now, it is a small thing in our warehouse and we build from there.
This does sound like a change of pace from the kind of small press comic shows that have sprung up in a big way over the last ten years or so. Why is now the time to launch a Festival-style event? Do you feel like it's a response to the current event calendar, something that fits particularly well for your company and city at this particular moment, or is it just something that occurred to you that would be great fun?
This kind of felt like a good time to get something going. I mentioned the Zombie-O-Rama before – it was amazing, and I had a load of fun doing it. I have always liked doing events, and I had thought about getting back into the convention thing (before APE I ran a convention in Northern California called Americon, they were pretty successful and eventually lead into my starting APE), but did not want to go back to the same thing I had done before.
I know there is a lot going on in the convention world, too, in the industry in general and even in our area, so I wanted to do something where I could kind of not be a part of that or look like I was trying to compete with anyone for space or attention.
San Jose is the 10th largest city in the country. Silicon Valley is so heavily urbanized that you might think it was one big city. If it was, the Valley would be one of the five largest cities in the country. So, this is a hometown thing for me, too, as I feel like San Jose and Silicon Valley could use something related to comics that is unique and cool, something with more of a DIY feel and festival atmosphere.
On to some specifics for the January 16th kick-off. We know the SLG warehouse will be featuring Jamaica Dyer, Rich Koslowski and Landry Walker. What are the specific things attendees can expect? Will there be a signing and sales set up? Programming of any kind? More special guests?
Actually, I think I worded that incorrectly or badly in the press release. That was the line-up for the event we ran in the fall. I will be announcing the line-up for the January event next week. There isn't going to be any programing at this January event as we need to figure out the logistics for something like that and it might require a dry run of its own.
Beyond your own in-house planning, what steps are you taking in order to grow the city-wide elements of the festival? Have you been reaching out to retailers or city officials to try to get some bigger plans rolling? Any responses so far?
I have started reaching out to the other galleries in downtown, as well as the downtown association. Most want to see where it is headed (everyone likes to bet on a winner). I have spoken with a couple of retailers as well. The response has been both overwhelming and underwhelming all at the same time.
I think it's fairly common knowledge that there are a lot of comic folk throughout the Bay Area, though most people probably couldn't put exact words to how the community comes together out there like they could for, say, New York or Portland. What would you typify as the strongest elements of the comics crowd in your area that you hope to tap into for this festival?
Not going to lie here, San Jose is a tough sell in the Bay Area. That's why Comic-Con moved both APE and WonderCon to San Francisco. It is difficult to argue with the logic, given the growth in attendance in both shows after the moves. But I also look at what Comic-Con managed to accomplish in San Diego. It took them 30-40 years, and the thing is now barley recognizable from what it was way back when. They probably could have moved that show to Los Angeles 20 years ago and gotten a quick attendance boost, but there is something unique about San Diego and the downtown there, and Comic-Con would have lost its personality.
So, I figure the communities will come out eventually once the thing has been around for a while.
You've set January 16 as the first official San Jose Comics Festival, but the press release didn't specify whether this would be an annual event or something more or less frequent. Any plans for that, or is now a matter of getting the first one off the ground and running?
Rough plans call for one more in Spring/Summer and one more in the Fall, and then hit the pause button and see where we are in regards to support from the city and the comics community. I want to try and roll in some new element to each thing, maybe expand to an extra venue or work in some other bit of programming.
Check back with CBR as more info on The San Jose Comics Festival as it becomes available, and in the meantime keep an eye on CBR's Events Calendar for up-to-date info on comics-related events nationwide!